Easter and the hope of resurrection

First published March 26, 2016

When my grandmother was old and widowed, I would visit her almost every weekend. She had a sharp mind and a wry sense of humor. I enjoyed her company.

I don’t think she knew the word “goodbye.” When I’d get up to leave, she would tell me that she would see me again.

The last time I talked with her was when she was dying. She had been on a respirator when I visited her at the hospital, but she was brought out of her drug-induced slumber so she could say her goodbyes.

Only she didn’t say goodbyes.

She was in good spirits and ready to move on. There wasn’t a hint of fear in her voice, only peace. And when the conversation ended, she said she would see me again.

For Christians, death isn’t the end, it’s only a transition, and it is not the last one.

I believe heaven is a way station for the righteous until the resurrection.

Many Christians, including most members of my family, disagree. They point to Scripture that says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Yet in that same passage, 2nd Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that we will not remain disembodied spirits; rather, we will have new bodies that do not grow old or tired or waste away.

This is what St. Paul writes: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and … then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”

Easter is when we celebrate the Savior’s victory over evil, sin (ours) and death. If we see Jesus’ crucifixion only as an example of sacrificial love, we’re missing the point. The Messiah’s resurrection after his atoning death on the cross is the fulcrum of history, the moment in time when everything is changed, the decisive battle in the spiritual warfare that rages still, but will end in triumph when the King returns and sets everything to rights. Until then, we are living in the new age that has already begun.

Some scoff at the notion that Jesus rose from the dead, but as a historical event, it is better documented than others of antiquity that we take for granted.

It is believed St. Paul’s Epistles were written just 10 to 15 years after Jesus’ death, when many who witnessed the risen Christ walking and talking were still alive and could tell about it.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that after Jesus was raised, as the Scriptures had foretold, he appeared to Peter, then to the other disciples, and after that, to more than 500 Christians, “most of whom are still living, though some have died.”

As Jesus was raised so will his followers be raised, and the earth will be cleansed, restored, renewed.

In Revelation 21, Jesus — as he is revealed in St. John’s vision —  says, “Behold, I am making all things new!”

The idea of a disembodied existence comes from the ancient Greeks, not the Jews, whose saga is the foundation of the Christian story, the “true myth,” as C.S. Lewis called it. When we recite in the creeds, “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” we are not only referring to the soul.

My understanding of the traditional belief in bodily transformation and restoration of the world is something I owe in part to N.T. Wright, a Church of England bishop and probably the world’s leading New Testament scholar. In his book, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church,” he explains, based on the Bible and church tradition, that there is a heaven, but it is not our final home.

When the Bible says that in the Father’s house are many dwellings, the Greek world used for dwellings is monai, which means a resting place on the way to someplace else. And in the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus tells the brigand on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise.” Yet in those same verses, the condemned man asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This implies that the kingdom to come is in the future, in the renewed heaven and earth.

That thought should give comfort to all who have surrendered themselves to the Father through his Son, who gave his life to save us and redeem Creation.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic whose fiction parallels the true story of the universal struggle between good and evil and the restoration of the world. In his epic novel, “The Lord of the Rings,” Sam Gamgee, the hobbit, sees Gandalf returned from the dead, strong, radiant and transformed.

Sam can’t believe his eyes, and asks Gandalf: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Christianity’s answer to that question is yes, it will, in the fullness of time.

That is the hope of the resurrection and the reason we celebrate Easter.

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